New Passport

Today, I went to the Italian Consulate to get a new passport. Unexpectedly, the visit prompted a moment of reflection and recollection.

Stepping into the Consulate felt almost like traveling to Italy. The Carabiniere at the door, RAI on the TV, the sound of the language floating in the background, the decor and office furniture – the experience was surreal in its consistency.

The interior reminded me of the Guglielmo Marconi school, and memories from my three years there came flooding back. During the interview, the topic of my first years in Naples came up, and those memories followed. The office furniture bubbled up memories of my year abroad in Bologna. I felt a little stunned by it all.

I speak Italian with my mother and grandmother nearly every day, read the language regularly, and visited Italy last fall. So I wondered why it was that this experience triggered such a strong reaction.

With computer memory, there's the concept of direct access and sequential access. The typical metaphor is that the former is like a book, the latter like a scroll. With a book, you can open up any page and immediately view its contents. With a scroll, you must first unwind the sections preceding the one you are interested in reading.

In human terms, perhaps the former is like being able to recall where one was on New Year's Eve, or on September 11, 2001; the latter is more akin to describing a meeting or an accident. One recollection focuses on an instance, the other covers a chronology.

I wonder if in human memory there is another kind of access – a sort of vertical-slicing access, that is the combination of the two. What happens is that durations are accessed directly. It's perhaps akin to remembering Christmastime instead of Christmas, 2000, or remembering springs past instead of March, 1997. In my case, the remembering was of spans of time from across my life – childhood, early adolescence, early adulthood – all in one go.